By John Fink
On Dec. 8 of last year, Pope Francis unexpectedly declared the Year of St. Joseph, from then until Dec. 8 of this year, as a special time to get to know the foster father of Jesus. The pope attached many indulgences to meditating about St. Joseph or praying the Litany of St. Joseph or other prayers directed to the spouse of the Blessed Virgin.
But how can we meditate about St. Joseph when we really know so little about him? Pope Francis himself called him “the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence.”
What do we know about St. Joseph? What are we not sure about? And what can we conjecture?
We know through Scripture that he was descended from King David, but we’re not sure about his father’s name. According to Matthew’s Gospel, it was Jacob (Mt1:16), but Luke’s Gospel says it was Heli (Lk 3:23).
We think of Joseph as a carpenter, but he apparently was more than that. The Gospels use the Greek word “tekton,” which is a master builder, somebody who works on the various materials needed for construction work, including timber and iron, but usually stone. Since there is so much stone in the Holy Land, most homes and other structures are built with stone.
We know that Joseph lived in Nazareth in Galilee. We can speculate he did construction work in Sepphoris, about an hour’s walk from Nazareth. Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee at the time and a much larger city than Nazareth.
How much older was Joseph than Mary? Again, we don’t know. Most paintings of the Holy Family depict Joseph as an older man. Where did that come from?
It originated from a document called the Protoevangelium of James, one of the more than 15 noncanonical accounts of the life of Jesus, probably written in the middle of the second century. The Church eventually decided that it was not divinely inspired but accepts portions of the work. For example, we got the names of the Blessed Virgin’s parents, Anne and Joachim, from the Protoevangelium, which tells of events prior to those in the canonical Gospels.
According to the Protoevangelium, Mary spent her childhood in the Temple in Jerusalem. When it was time for her to leave when she reached puberty, the priests called widowers together and chose Joseph to be Mary’s husband. The Western Church rejected that story, but the idea persisted that Joseph was considerably older than Mary.
Joseph was most likely older than Mary, but probably not as old as some old paintings depict.
We know that Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit after she and Joseph went through the first part of the Jewish wedding procedure, the betrothal, but before the second part when the groom took the bride into his home. How did Mary explain that to Joseph? Whatever she said, Joseph did not believe it because he decided to divorce her quietly. He changed his mind when he was told that it was through the Holy Spirit that Mary conceived.
According to the Protoevangelium, Joseph blamed himself when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy because, he said, “I received her as a virgin out of the Temple of the Lord my God and have not protected her.”
Then Joseph shows us how resourceful he was when they went to Bethlehem and Jesus was born. He and Mary undoubtedly went prepared to stay for a while rather than return with a newborn baby, at least for 40 days until Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. Perhaps Joseph led an extra donkey with their belongings and tools he needed to support them while they were gone. He didn’t expect his family to become refugees from Herod’s soldiers, but they did, and he led Mary and Jesus to Egypt.
After their return to Nazareth, the only time Joseph appears again in the Gospels is when Jesus remained in Jerusalem when he was 12. Joseph quietly cared for his family until his happy death, undoubtedly in the arms of Jesus and Mary.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
John Fink is the editor emeritus of The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
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